Tuesday, 20 September 2011

No miracles for the Swansea Valley

Sky News' Kay Burley
This article was originally published on Amansaman.

Few of us can have failed to be moved by the tragedy which unfolded in the Gleision Colliery in South Wales on Thursday and Friday. We saw the gradual extinguishing of hope in the grim but determined faces on our screens, optimism giving way to stoicism and finally resignation. Mining disasters have happened many times in this country, and mining communities have endured this pain often in the past, but we tend to think of the UK as being in a post-industrial age, and the sudden reality was shocking and raw.

Some of us no doubt made the comparison with the Chilean miners’ story from last year, a disaster which turned into a joyful story as those trapped were freed. Sadly there was to be no happy ending this time.

And the Chilean comparison was not lost on the army of 24 hour news teams which converged on the site as the story developed. They had, of course, had a bonanza on the Chile story – a gripping, heroic event with endless shots of tension and elation and a happy ending to crown it off. It was difficult to escape the impression that they thought they might have a repeat performance here.

There is that tension at the heart of all news journalism, of course – the inescapable fact that tragedy sells, and the all too easy step from informing the public to exploiting the victims. Add in a highly competitive landscape in which ratings make successes, being first with the latest consumes all, and social media, unfettered by principle, gazumps all scoops, and the mix becomes positively dangerous.

Enter Kay Burley.

For those who do not know, Ms Burley is a presenter on Sky News. If Sky News is an experiment in turning The Sun into a television channel, then Kay Burley is the lovechild of Kelvin McKenzie and Anne Robinson. For the avoidance of doubt, that is not intended as a compliment.

She has a well deserved reputation for blatant prejudice, glib ignorance and the excusing of both on the basis that her role makes her some sort of devil’s advocate. These are qualities which, of course, make her the ideal person to send to the scene of an unfolding tragedy.

Her questioning of exhausted rescuers giving their time to help update the nation on progress was banal beyond belief. “Can you tell us what the colliery is typically used for?” elicited a weary “It’s a coal mine” (the “you moron” being silent). She went on to harangue local MP Peter Hain, who had gone largely without sleep to organise help for the families and be a bulwark between them and the media. She asked stupid, offensive questions and criticised the baffled, sometimes rightly irritable response.

To say that Ms Burley has form here would be an understatement. Her spat with Labour MP Chris Bryant as she tried to dismiss the seriousness of the phone hacking case is well worth looking up on YouTube. She asked the visibly distressed former wife of the Ipswich prostitute murderer whether he wouldn’t have done it if she’d given him a better sex life. She conducted an interview with David Babbs of 38 Degrees which ended with her screaming at him and refusing to allow him to talk. Her live coverage from the scene of the police standoff with killer Raoul Moat was littered with leaps to judgement and invasive, unhelpful interviews.

There is clearly a time and a place – and an audience – for this style of confrontational, opinion-up-front presenting. But the time is not during an unfolding tragedy, and frankly the place is not the news.

The vicious circle of competitive 24 hour news channels is starting to create our own version of Fox News, and that is something that anyone who favours honesty and facts should be terribly afraid of. The hackgate affair put an end to Murdoch’s plans of taking Sky News permanently down this path, but there are clearly still forces at work pushing for the same thing.

There’s a grave danger that we assume the media has been shaken into change for the better by the recent scandal, and it has not. We’ve seen false contrition and careful legal work, but we haven’t seen fundamental change.

We’ll know when that fundamental change has come when tragedy starts being treated with respect, and Kay Burley is no longer on our screens.

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